42 Im Dol Strasse (Part 1)

The drive from the railroad station was a shocker. Block after block of bombed-out buildings. Streets swept clean, but piles of rubble towering everywhere. In between, tall jagged walls with gaping holes where windows should have been. Skeleton structures silhouetted against a flat, gray sky, blackened and dead. We said very little, only stared.

To lighten the mood, Daddy provided a history lesson: “World War II ended in Europe in May of 1945 with the surrender of Germany. The Allies—America, Great Britain, France, and Russia—met at the Yalta Conference in Potsdam, not far from here, to decide what to do with Germany, how it should be governed, and who would be in charge. The Allies couldn’t agree, though, so they divided Germany into four zones of occupation, one for each of the victorious countries.”

“What does vic-tri-us mean?” I asked.

“It’s pronounced vic-tor-i-ous, honey,” he said. “The victorious countries are the ones who defeated Germany in the war. There were four of them: America, Great Britain, France, and Russia. After they divided Germany into four zones—”

Anxious to show off, Eleanor interrupted: “Oh, you mean like California and Arizona and Missouri and—”

“Well, sort of. In America, you can pass from one state to another, just like you did driving from California to New York, and there aren’t any fences or walls. But here in Germany you can’t just go from one zone to another whenever you choose. There are walls and gates and guards, and you have to have a passport and special papers to go from one to another.”

“We had to show passports and special papers to get on the train at Bremerhaven yesterday,” Eleanor said. “And then they sealed the windows and doors shut so the Russians couldn’t get us when we went through their zone at night.”

“Even with the zones, a problem remained,” Daddy went on. “You already know that Berlin is the capital. Well, each of the Allies wanted Berlin in their zone because it’s the most important city in Germany. But under the new plan, Berlin ended up in the middle of the Russian zone. So they decided to divide Berlin into four parts too, each set off from the others by gates and checkpoints, where you have to—”

Eleanor was grinning now. “Show more passports and papers?”

You’re exactly right, more passports and papers,” Daddy said. “We haven’t had to show any today because the train station and our new house are both in the American sector. So are your school and nearly all the other places we’ll be going while we live in Berlin. In fact, we’re almost there. This is our street coming up. This is Im Dol Strasse.”

Tall pine trees lined the street on both sides. “This was a fancy neighborhood before the war,” Daddy said, “but most of the homes were destroyed when the Allies had to bomb Berlin in order to get the Germans to surrender. A few were only slightly damaged, though, and those have been fixed up so the families of the American occupation forces—people like us—will have a place to live.”

All I could see beyond the trees were more dead walls and huge piles of rubble. But a couple of blocks down there was one nice house, then another, then a very big house with a high brick wall and a guardhouse at the gate. “Is that our house?” I asked.

“No, Trish, that one belongs to General Lucius Clay. He’s the commanding general of the American forces here in Berlin. But ours is right next door.”

Daddy stopped in front of what looked to me like a fairy castle, with a tower and everything. For a moment I just stared, my eyes as big as saucers. I reached for the door handle.

“Hold on! You girls wait here in the car. I have a surprise.”

Mommy gave Daddy a blank look, but Eleanor and I clapped our hands and squirmed in our seats. “Oh, goody! A surprise! We love surprises!”

Daddy trotted up the walk and went in the front door. Moments later he came out with a dog on a leash, a dog much bigger than Rusty, a spotted brown dog with a black face and pointy ears, a stubby tail, a white chest, and four white feet. Eleanor and I jumped out, shrieking with glee. Mommy followed close behind.

“This is Skippy,” Daddy said. “He’s seven months old. He’s a brindle boxer.”

“Who does he belong to?” I asked suspiciously as Skippy danced around between us.

“Why, he’s ours, of course,” Daddy said with a big grin “All ours.”

We were so engrossed with Skippy that we hadn’t even noticed several people standing in a line near the front door. Daddy waved them over and introduced them. “This is Frau Erdmann, this is Gertrude, and this is Franz. They’re going to be taking care of us.” The two women were dressed in stiffly starched uniforms and aprons while Franz wore a heavy brown jacket and clutched his rumpled felt hat in a callused hand.

I moved down the line and shook each hand. “I’m pleased to meet you.”

“Frau Erdmann will give you the tour,” Daddy said as he headed back to the car to get our suitcases.

We followed Frau Erdmann inside. Skippy came too.

The front door opened into a round room. Its ceiling reached all the way to the top of the tower. “This is the foyer,” Frau Erdmann said in perfect English. On the left side, wide stairs circled up to the second floor. But at the top was a wall so you couldn’t go any farther. It looked odd, but Mommy didn’t question it.

We followed Frau Erdmann down a hall to the right. She opened the first door and announced, “This is the music room, Madam.” On one wall, a fire crackled in a black marble fireplace. Along another, a deep cupboard with etched glass doors stored shiny brass musical instruments. A thick red Persian rug covered the floor, where a small leather loveseat, two matching chairs, and two tables with lamps for reading formed a circle in the middle. Filling the corner between the cupboard and the window, a gleaming upright piano beckoned.

“Oh, my goodness,” Mommy said.

Eleanor stared at the piano, her eyes as bright and glittery as the fire. “Not now, sweetie,” Mommy said softly. “You can try it out later.”

Farther down the hall, double doors opened into a huge room with a shiny parquet floor, paneled wainscoting, and elaborate ceiling moldings. On the left wall hung a tapestry showing a shepherd and his flock in a meadow, with forested mountains behind. A parade of carved, straight-backed chairs lined the walls, their seats upholstered in red velvet. A dozen bronze sconces dripped with crystal pendants. “This is the ballroom, Madam,” said Frau Erdmann. “You’ll use it only for formal parties as the temperature remains quite cool.”

At the end of the hall another set of double doors revealed the dining room with its carved table and ten chairs matching those in the ballroom. On either side of tall windows on the far wall hung heavy, red velvet drapes, tied back with braided ropes, ending in long gold tassels. Two crystal chandeliers hung above the table, and beneath it another thick Persian rug covered the floor, soft as a kitten. From a pair of gilt-framed paintings on a side wall, gaunt, skinny-legged hunting dogs stared, lifeless pheasants dangling from their mouths. “Your meals will be served here,” said Frau Erdmann.

“Can I have that chair?” I asked, pointing to one where my back would be to the dogs and their awful dead pheasants. No one answered. Skippy wagged his stubby tail and licked my hand.

Frau Erdmann moved on to a third set of double doors. “And this, Madam, is the library.” Though smaller than the ballroom, this room proved the grandest of all, with two sets of French doors, one opening directly outside into the garden and another into a room with glass walls.

“A greenhouse?” Mommy asked Frau Erdmann.

“That is the solarium, Madam. It is used only in the summertime. Right now the furniture is stored in the basement. You will enjoy it in the spring. The cushions are upholstered in rose-patterned chintz fabric to match the lovely red roses that Franz cultivates in the garden.”

Beneath the twelve-foot paneled ceiling, tall, bronze-screened book cupboards lined the two inside walls. Thousands of books filled the shelves—many of them medical books, we learned later, but many classics too, in German, French, Latin, and English. Across the tops of the bookcases, a half dozen marble busts of statesmen and literary figures—men Daddy identified as Shakespeare, Milton, Plato, and others—sat frozen in time, staring straight ahead from lifeless eyes. More Persian rugs covered this floor, and four soft leather chairs formed a casual grouping in the center. Perpendicular to one bookcase wall, a carved mahogany desk had banks of drawers on each side and a carved panel closing in the knee hole. Perfect for a game of hide and seek or a pirate cave or a playhouse for my dolls. This was to become my favorite room.

From the library, Frau Erdmann led us back toward the foyer, bypassing a closed door on the right.

Mommy paused. “And that one?” she asked, nodding toward the closed door.

“That opens into the butler’s pantry, Madam, and then the kitchen is beyond.”

“May we see them?” Mommy asked with a friendly smile.

“Very well,” said Frau Erdmann. I don’t think she was anxious to show us this part of the house, but she opened the door and we all crowded into the narrow butler’s pantry. On either side, dark, shiny cabinets rose nearly to the ceiling. Beveled-glass-paneled doors protected carefully arrayed china, etched crystal glasses, and dozens of sterling silver serving pieces.

“Meissen, eighteenth century,” Frau Erdmann said as she reached for a floral-patterned dinner plate with heavy gold decoration around the edge. “Hand-painted,” she added.

“Oh my, how beautiful!” Mommy whispered. Now her eyes were as big as saucers.

Beyond the butler’s pantry, the kitchen was equipped with a hulking black iron stove on one wall and an old-fashioned icebox on another. Next to the icebox, white fluted ceramic legs supported a wide, shallow sink. In the center of the room, a round table was surrounded by plain wooden chairs.

“Is this the breakfast table?” Mommy asked.

“Your meals will be served in the dining room,” Frau Erdmann repeated. “This one is for the servants.”

From the kitchen, Frau Erdmann led us back to the foyer and then down another hall to two bedrooms and a bath. I remember little of the bedrooms except they were several times the size of our bedrooms on Spaulding Avenue. The bathroom, though, remains crystal clear. As large as a bedroom, it had tiny hexagonal white tiles on the floor and square white tiles extending halfway up the walls. Beneath the window squatted a gigantic claw-foot tub, and—most fascinating of all—there were two toilets!

“Why are there two toilets?”

“That is a bidet, my child,” Frau Erdmann said.

“What’s a bidet?”

Frau Erdmann just looked at me and then at Mommy, who stammered something about keeping your bottom clean.

I didn’t ask anything more about the bidet, but I wanted to. Why wouldn’t you just clean your bottom when you took a bath? Maybe it was for Skippy. Sometimes Rusty drank water out of our toilet on Spaulding Avenue if the lid was up and if someone forgot to fill his water bowl in the kitchen.

Mommy asked about the upstairs.

“Off limits,” Frau Erdmann said firmly.

“Oh I see,” Mommy said.

We spent the rest of the afternoon unpacking, getting plenty of help from Skippy, who had to sniff everything. Some clothes went into dresser drawers and other clothes went on hangers in a big wood cupboard with mirrors on the doors—an armoire, Frau Erdmann called it. There weren’t any regular closets. Eleanor and I each had three dresser drawers and our own bed, but we had to share the armoire.

That evening Eleanor asked Frau Erdmann if we should set the table for dinner. She gave us a funny look. “That is Gertrude’s job, but you may watch.”

First, Gertrude moved the extra chairs away from the table and placed them against the walls, leaving one at each end and one on either side. She placed an embroidered linen mat and matching napkin on the table in front of each chair and then arranged six sterling silver utensils on each mat. Seeing the perplexed look on our faces, she explained: “Dis ist salad fork and dis ist dinner fork. Dey go on left. Dis ist soup spoon. Next ist coffee spoon, and next ist dinner knife. Dey go on right. Above forks goes bread plate, and little knife ist for butter. In middle ist soup bowl and plate. Above dinner knife, water glass and wine glass.” Gertrude spoke English with a thick accent, but we had no trouble understanding her.

Eleanor and I looked at each other, and I could tell we were thinking the same thing. What a lot of extra stuff to wash and dry and put away! But who cares? That’s apparently Gertrude’s job too!

When we all gathered in the dining room for supper, I claimed the chair where my back would be to the paintings of the skinny-legged dogs and their dangling dead pheasants. We placed our napkins across our knees and waited, hands folded in our laps.

Gertrude arrived carrying a lidded tureen. She stepped to Mommy’s left side, set the tureen down on the table, lifted the lid, and asked, “Corn chowder, Madam?”

“Yes, please,” Mommy answered.

Carefully, Gertrude ladled some into Mommy’s bowl.

“Thank you,” Mommy said.

Next it was Daddy’s turn, then Eleanor’s, and then mine. We copied Mommy and said please and thank you. Then Gertrude replaced the lid on the tureen and returned it to the kitchen.

When we finished our soup, Gertrude came back. Working from our right side this time, she removed the bowls, plates, and soup spoons to a big tray, then picked up the tray and returned it to the kitchen.

Next came four salads, served from the left and cleared from the right. Two more courses followed: sliced roast beef and mashed potatoes with gravy followed by a dessert of freshly baked apple pie.

“Heavens,” Mommy said, “we’ll all be popping out of our clothes in no time.”

“Don’t eat more than you want,” Daddy said. “Nothing goes to waste. Frau Erdmann scrapes the leftovers onto pie tins and sets those out on top of the low stone wall outside the kitchen.”

“For animals?”

“No, not for animals. For the many German people who have no jobs, no homes, and very little food. A few of them come each night. They clean up every last morsel and leave the tins on the wall, hoping for more leftovers the next night.

“Can we see them when they come?”

“No, Trish. We don’t even look. These are proud people who just happened to be on the losing side in the war, that’s all. We wouldn’t want to embarrass them by watching them eat like we would watch animals in a zoo.”

“Oh.” I decided I would always leave plenty of food on my plate for the starving Germans. But I also planned to hide behind the heavy drapes in the library some night and peek out the window to see what a starving German looked like.

After dinner we moved to the music room to sit in front of the fire. Skippy curled up at my feet as Daddy told us more stories about our new home. “Before the war,” he said, “I think this place probably belonged to a doctor, judging by all the medical books in the library. I don’t know his name, but he may have been Jewish and may have been killed by Hitler’s Nazis.”

“Why?” I wanted to know.

“Hitler hated Jewish people and wanted to get rid of them, especially the smart ones like doctors and bankers and professors and business owners, so he began rounding them up and shipping them to concentration camps and—”

“I don’t think we need to go into all that,” Mommy interrupted. “Just tell us about the house.”

“Toward the end of the war,” Daddy continued, “Russian troops—remember, Russia was one of our allies. Anyway, the Russians were the first ones to fight their way back into Berlin. It wasn’t an easy fight and lots of their soldiers were killed or injured. They needed a hospital where they could treat the wounded, but the German hospitals had all been destroyed by the bombs. This house was still standing, so the Russians turned it into a hospital. When the war was over and Germany was divided into four zones—you remember that story I told you?

“Yes,” Eleanor said, “about the walls and gates and having to show passports and special papers?”

“That’s right. Anyway, when Berlin was divided into sectors, this house ended up in the American sector. Since the Americans didn’t need it for a hospital, they fixed it up for us to live in. At least they fixed up the downstairs. The upstairs is just as the Russians left it, and it’s off limits.”

“Now I understand that strange wall at the top of the main stairway,” Mommy said. “Well, the downstairs certainly has more room than we’ll ever need.”

“Tell us about Frau Erdmann and Gertrude and Franz,” Mommy continued.

“I understand Frau Erdmann was born here in Germany, but when she was young, she moved to London to study to become a chef, and then she worked for a British family for years, until she decided to return home to Germany not long before the war broke out. That’s why her English is so good.”

“Does she have a family here in Berlin?

“Not that I know of. She’s never mentioned anyone. She’s in her late fifties, so her parents are probably already gone. I like her. She has a sense of humor. But whatever you do, don’t go rummaging around in her kitchen. She does not like that! If you’re hungry and want a snack, you have to ask and she’ll get it for you.”

“I see. And Gertrude?”

“I don’t know much about Gertrude, except that she’s been approved to work as a maid for American families. She isn’t as friendly as Frau Erdmann and doesn’t say much about herself, but I think she’s pretty smart. She’s interested in what’s going on with the new government and listens to news broadcasts on the radio whenever she can. I suspect she’s a bit unhappy about working as a maid. Maybe she had a better job before the war, or maybe she was part of a well-to-do family and had servants of her own.”

“She certainly seems capable,” Mommy said.

“As for Franz, we share him with two other families. He takes care of all the yard work and handles the coal furnace in the basement. He’s also a handyman and can fix just about anything. He only speaks a few words of English, though, so you’ll have to get Frau Erdmann or Gertrude to translate if you want to talk to him.

“These people are very lucky, and they know it,” Daddy continued. “They each have a small room of their own in the basement, they share a decent bathroom, and they get three meals a day and a regular paycheck.”

“Now tell us about Skippy,” I said. “Where did he come from?”

“I got him a month ago. He was six months old, not a puppy. Well, he’s still a big puppy, but at least he’s housebroken. A German family owned him. But they were living in a tiny apartment and didn’t have enough to feed him, so they put an ad on the American news network, hoping an American family would give him a good home. I knew how upset you girls were about leaving Rusty behind, so when I heard the ad, I decided to surprise you. Skippy liked it here right away—plenty of good food—and he’ll like it even better now that you girls are here.”

“Is he allowed to sleep on my bed?”

“Well, I suppose so.”

That was all I needed to hear. “C’mon, Skippy, let’s get ready for bed.”

Author: Patricia Minch, Writer, etc.

Growing up an “Army Brat,” by age eighteen I had lived in nineteen different homes in half a dozen states, Europe, and the Far East, and had traveled extensively beyond those. A National Merit Scholarship finalist in 1958, I attended the University of Texas, El Paso, and the University of California, Berkeley. Years later, I took additional courses at Cabrillo College in Aptos, California, and then spent thirteen years as a self-employed editor for court reporters. An avid writer, genealogist, gardener, landscape designer, amateur architect, woodworker, and antiques collector/dealer, I am also wife, mother, and grandmother. I’ve written feature articles for local newspapers and recently completed my first book, a narrative non-fiction account of my father's experiences as a guerrilla in North Luzon (Philippines) during WWII. I currently live with my husband, a retired college instructor and Air Force veteran, in Northern California.

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